An early pioneer of colour photography and digital printing, the 77-year-old is best known for his cinematic, light- strewn images of Morocco, Russia, the US and his native Belgium. Working across six decades, he’s produced many books, including the recent East/West and Edges, both published by Thames & Hudson
In my childhood there was a hierarchy at home. There was God, the Pope and my father. My strict Catholic upbringing made me want to leave the family home as soon as I could, to discover the rest of the world and meet people whom I admired.
I was very lucky. I knew, since I was very young, that cinema and photography were the only things I wanted to do. At home there was always a Rolleiflex and a Paillard cinema camera lying around. I am sure that had some influence on me.
Seeing Pop Art in the 1970s in New York made me look in a different way. I looked with a sense of humour at the banality of everyday life. Ugly can be beautiful.
The TV is a brainwashing machine. In the early 1970s I made wonderful Pop Art with the colours and distortion of the screen by playing with the antenna. This work is probably the closest I have ever come to journalistic photography.
I never wanted to assist a photographer. In Paris I nearly assisted William Klein, but I was so impressed by his aggressive personality and strong physical presence that it was enough for me to learn that the work of photographers often looks like they do.
My photographs are definitely not staged. I catch what I see. I am very happy when things fall perfectly into place. I never intervene. I never talk to people I take pictures of.
My most important commissions were for industrial companies. That gave me the opportunity to travel a lot and discover amazing and interesting industrial sites to which I would never have had access otherwise.
I am very much inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is not only about composition; his work says a lot about the time and the place where it has been shot, so it has different layers of interest. I try to work in the same tradition.
Reality is far too complex. I don’t think objectivity exists. It’s subjectivity in art that really interests me; the connection I get with an artist through his art.
Being a photographer is definitely a solitary quest. You have to be completely by yourself.I never have a plan. I never know what I am going to do when I go out to take pictures. I just follow my instinct.
Black-and-white comes from the brain, colour from the stomach. Colour is more sensual. It was definitely an independent need to be a colour photographer. I found out about the American colour photographers, Eggleston and Shore, much later.
Different places give you different colour palettes to work with. And that’s very clear in one of my last books, East/West, which confronts the dull colours of Moscow in 1989 with the harsh and aggressive colours of LA and Las Vegas in 1981.
Shooting from film has definitely given me the discipline to shoot digitally. What I do enjoy in particular about digital photography is the great control over printing. It has been worth the wait to now have my work printed as photography books, as the technology can do justice to the colours I want.
What has photography taught me? I seem to understand life much better when I frame. I have a need to take pictures all the time. I hate the thought that I could miss a picture.
When I started there were hardly any photography books. Today there are too many influences. It is much harder to be a photographer today for this reason.
I am fascinated by coincidence. I don’t believe things happen by accident. There are some incredible stories behind some of my pictures, but they are too long to tell here…
magnumphotos.com/photographer/harry-gruyaert East/West and Edges are both published by Thames and Hudson https://thamesandhudson.com/feed/product-search?q=harry+gruyaert This article was first published in the December issue of BJP